One of the easiest, most effective ways to improve your photo compositions is by following the tried and true rules. Rules that have been passed down for centuries, from artists as far back as Ancient Greece.
The following are a few of the most well-known composition rules (and a few you may not have heard of). While these rules aren’t literally “rules” you are required to follow, they make framing your subject easier and less guess-work.
#1: The Rule of Thirds
Okay, you may or may not have heard of this before. The rule of thirds basically states that you should place the subject of interest to the right, left, top, or bottom, of the image instead of dead center.
This rule can be very helpful when taking shots. Most people simply take their photos dead center. I know I can remember when I did this.
Simply by changing where you place the subject can make your photo much more interesting.
What to do with this rule:
Always try to take photos with the rule of third in mind. Avoid placing your subjects dead center.
Think of taking pictures as painting. Except you don’t have to paint anything, you just have to find the right angle and frame. And placing the subject dead center takes no effort and results in boring shots.
#2: Leading Lines
Look around you. There are lines everywhere. The walls, the floor, the furniture, your body contours, streets, light poles…everything has lines and shapes.
The rule of Leading Lines recommends that you use these lines to create more visually dynamic shots.
When you take pictures, pay close attention to the lines and your primary subject. Do the lines add interest to the subject?
Think of the lines as ‘arrows’. What are they pointing at? Does it make the shot more interesting? How can you reframe your shot to make the lines more interesting and ‘arrow’-like.
These lines all lead somewhere and having the lines lead to the subject you’re photographing can make for greater visual impact.
The Different Types of Lines:
There are three main types of lines:
- Vertical Lines
- Horizontal Lines
- Diagonal Lines
Each line has a different effect to the viewer. When you create a photo with primarily one type of line you are going to create that specific type of effect.
A good way to figure this out is by looking how long the vertical lines are compared to the horizontal lines. If the horizontal lines are longer, they will generally create more of their effect on the shot.
Let me explain with a few demonstrations…
Horizontal Lines=Relaxation, Tranquility
Notice the horizontal lines in the photo below of Newport Beach. It creates a very relaxed, So Cal ‘Chill’ vibe to the shot.
Vertical Lines = Energy, Excitement
Notice how the shot below creates a sense of energy and excitement. The road is composed with vertical lines as are the trees.
Notice how the horizon line in the background isn’t nearly as powerful as the vertical lines.
Diagonal lines = Movement, Change, Conflict
Notice how the stairs create an added sense of conflict in the mans expression.
Notice how the photo below is primarily horizontal lines yet the diagonal line of the man walking creates a sense of movement.
How would the photo look if it was composed so the man was walking in a horizontal line?
How to Use This Rule:
Pay close attention to the lines all around you. Try to see how different changes in your framing alter the mood of the shot. Try one version with vertical lines dominant. Try another with more horizontal lines.
The key is experimentation.
A lot of beginning photographers take photos that are much too complex and hard to understand.
When you take a picture you want to have the viewer know exactly where to look.
Hence the rule of simplicity.
When you find something to take a picture of, be sure to get closer and make the photo as easy to view as possible.
For example, if you’re taking a shot of flowers and there are five flowers in the shot, make some changes.
Get close and isolate the single flower. It’ll most likely be better than the cluttered shot of five flowers.
For now, start trying to focus on one main object in your photo and reducing the clutter of other background objects.
Start paying attention to the background. Try simplifying it.
#4: Asymmetrical Balance
Take a look at the scale below.
Now, imagine there is a rock on one side. How many feathers would need to be on the other side to balance it out? Although thousands of feathers and one rock are different in size and shape, they both balance out.
The same happens with asymmetrical balance for photography. Although both parts of the photo are not identical, they balance out.
Notice the photo below. The buildings to the right are balanced out with the sky and sun to the left. Imagine how less visually appealing the shot would be if the sun was not there? Although the sun may seem like a ‘speck’ in the shot, the powerful change in colors around the sun creates a contrast with the village.
And asymmetrical balance.
What to do:
Try thinking of how the overall photo is composed and objects interact with one another. Does the background balance with the foreground?
#5: Symmetrical Balance
This balancing is when you take a shot and both sides look the same.
It can be identical like an orange cut in half or a shot with two people in the same pose looking at each other.
- Notice how the orange is symmetrically balanced by placing the center of the orange dead center with the image.
- Also notice how the water from the top is balanced with the water from the bottom.
- If this photo was cut in half vertically and horizontally, it would be like a mirror image.
#6: Give Your Subject Visual Space
Each and every photograph you take has both positive and negative space. Positive space describes the space where your primary subject is located. Negative space is everything else.
Often times when beginners compose their shots, they frame the shot way too tight, leaving little or no negative space around their subject.
The result is a crammed image that lacks visual balance and beauty.
By allowing your subject to have some space around them, you end up with a more appealing image.
Be sure, however, to place the negative open space around the area where your subject is leaning towards (through leading lines).
This allows viewers to observe your subject, see what they’re looking at or where they’re moving, and visually follow that movement.
It invites visual exploration.
For example, if your subject is looking to the left, ensure there is negative space to the left. If your subject is jumping up, make sure there is space above them.
Using These Composition Tips:
When first starting out, try using one composition tip with each shot. This will help you master each individual rule individually.
Once you feel comfortable with one rule, move on to the next.
The key is one rule at a time. When you get more comfy, try combining multiple rules together.
Notice how these composition rules are used by the pros. This should give you a better idea of how you can use them in your photos as well.